Snob Hit

It's about fission, but there's no bang

Even as the house lights were rising on the intermission of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' current offering, a patron in the next row turned to his companion and -- with a tone of defeat in his voice -- said, "I should have read this before we came." How right he was. If, before seeing the play, you study the tangled text, and then plod through Frayn's extensive postscript notes, you do stand half a chance of following some of it.

But at least that fellow in the next row was being honest. Out in the lobby, I repeatedly overheard the same bluff sentence. "You really have to listen to this play" seemed to be a hypocritical code phrase for "I don't have a clue as to what's going on."

Copenhagen is laden with dense scientific discussions about nuclear fission and the "uncertainty principle." But, in fact, the play is a crystal-clear example of another principle, a theater principle known as the "snob hit." This principle was unearthed and named by William Goldman in 1969, in his seminal book about Broadway, The Season. It's based on the premise that if a play is British and arrives with a pedigree from the critics, an American audience will pretend to like said play even if it doesn't understand a word of what's being uttered onstage. Check out Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, David Hare -- and now Copenhagen.

The framework for Frayn's award-winning drama is a mysterious meeting that occurred in September 1941. On the eve of America's entry into World War II, even as Hitler was devouring Europe and Scandinavia, the distinguished German physicist Werner Heisenberg traveled to occupied Denmark for a strained reunion with the world's most famous atomic physicist, Niels Bohr, and his wife, Margrethe. Both men were Nobel Prize-winners; between them they may have possessed the knowledge to create a new kind of bomb that could wreak havoc on civilization.

So why did Heisenberg travel to Copenhagen? What did he want to discuss with his mentor, Bohr? Considering that no one knows what transpired that night -- or even whether anything of interest was discussed -- the play takes a maddeningly circuitous route to not telling us. Nor does it try to develop the characters. Seeing as how they're already ghosts when the play begins, Frayn apparently had little interest in fleshing them out. Instead, the actors are burdened with trying to make comprehensible more scientific jargon than a layman could ever hope to comprehend. Eventually, despite their valiant efforts, the actors are overwhelmed by the play's determination to bewilder.

Perhaps Copenhagen is so intent on obfuscation because its very premise will not stand up to historical scrutiny. Two minutes into the performance, we are informed that this purportedly infamous meeting of minds marked "the end of the famous friendship between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg." And at evening's end, Heisenberg complains to Bohr, "Even you turned your back on me. It was never the same."

But last April, in a seminar before the play's performance at the Edison Theatre, Bohr's grandson made it abundantly clear that as soon as World War II ended, these two physicists promptly resumed their close friendship. Once you question the premise underlying Frayn's play, you begin to realize the transparent expediency of dialogue such as, "[Heisenberg] must have something remarkably important to say." Oh yeah? Says who?

Of course, Copenhagen is a drama, not a documentary. A viewer can choose to accept or reject the fictions and still be intrigued by Frayn's profound questions about the moral irreconcilables faced by men of science in times of war. But those questions would be a lot more involving if the audience stood half a chance of following the discourse. Alas, I fear that too many viewers at Copenhagen will find themselves perplexed, and ultimately bored, as they strive to keep up with what's occurring on the Rep stage. To those weary sojourners who feel left behind while trying to keep up with this "important" play, a word of solace: Don't be too hard on yourselves; you are not alone.